Year Published: 2014
Designer: Scott Almes
Publisher: Gamelyn Games
Playtime: 30 minutes
One Sentence Synopsis: A tiny exercise in damage mitigation.
The second entry into Gamelyn Games’s Tiny Epic series of games, Tiny Epic Defenders kickstarted last year and started delivering to backers in late January/early February 2015. I hadn’t even played Tiny Epic Kingdoms when I backed this, but the quality of that first campaign convinced me this was one I’d probably regret not getting in on, and for the low-price entry point of $24 I figured it was worth a shot. We ended up actually printing out the Print and Play version of the game during the campaign and writing up a preview article on it; my group enjoys cooperative games, and we liked TED enough that I kept my pledge on the deluxe edition. You can read that preview article here.
This review is going to be a little different than my normal ones since we’ve already done a preview for the game. I won’t re-hash the rules here because they’re mostly the same as what we wrote in the preview article; if you’d like to read the brief write-up of the rules, click the link above. Instead, I’m going to briefly reiterate what the game is, and then get right into what I think of the final version and whether TED still holds water for us.
Tiny Epic Defenders is a light, cooperative game for 1-4 players that takes roughly 30 minutes to play. Players each assume the role of a unique class and work together to defend their capital city and outlying lands against increasingly nasty hordes of enemies. To do so successfully the team must balance defending territories, using special abilities, decreasing threat levels, and keeping themselves above zero health. In the end, they must defeat the Epic Foe during the game’s final wave or watch their lands and city become overrun and burn to the ground.
Randomization is a key factor in the staying-power of light, filler games like Tiny Epic Defenders, and for that reason I think the added few dollars for the deluxe edition was money well spent. I received an additional 5 hero classes(15 total), 2 artifacts(12 total), 2 dire enemies(8 total), and 2 epic foes(8 total), which helps keep the game experience fresh each time. Each territory card is also double-sided and includes a different ability on each side. While you could technically pre-determine all the starting territories, positions, classes, and monsters, I find doing that in any cooperative game like this just turns it into a puzzle that, once solved during the initial setup, ruins the game for future playthroughs. For me, anyway, the point is to work with what you’re dealt even if that means you get the shaft every now and again. If players end up feeling like they’ve figured the game out, however, TED does include higher difficulty levels that are worth trying.
Tiny Epic Defenders is meant to be a light, quick game that is still capable of presenting a challenge, and that’s exactly how it plays. You’ll be up and running in 5 minutes your first time, and games really do only last 20-30 minutes even if you make it to the final wave. The mechanics are simple and straight-forward, but the game is balanced well enough that players will constantly have to make hard choices about where to go and what to do, often without enough actions to do everything they need in order to negate the incoming destruction. At its core, this is a game about damage mitigation and being able to survive until players can lay the beat down on the final Epic Foe.
I’ve listened to and read some reviewers who really hate the artwork in this game, but I actually like it. Like the game itself the art is simple and light, and in this instance I actually much prefer the cartoon, stylized art in Tiny Epic Defenders to more realistic alternatives. It simply fits the game better than another art-style would, and it lends some brand continuity to the game since Tiny Epic Kingdoms contained similar artwork. I’ll wholly agree, however, that the theme feels very pasted on. Tom Vasel recently eviscerated the game in a Dice Tower video review, and made a comment along-the-lines of you could be playing as lawn mowers and trying to defend against weeds cropping up in your yard and this would end up being the same game. That’s totally true, but it’s also completely true of most euro-games on the market. If theme integration is important to you, don’t expect much here.
Also like TEK, Tiny Epic Defenders has a very high production value. The box is extremely hardy, the cards are all of a good thickness and linen finish, and the shaped threat tokens and health tokens are a great little touch. The box is small enough to fit in pockets on cargo pants, and the components mostly fit very well inside. I found the insert is actually a little tight towards the bottom if you put the large cards in first, but if you put the small cards and wooden pieces on the bottom and the city/epic foe/character cards on top that it all fits exceptionally well. There won’t be room to sleeve, unfortunately, but there are few enough cards that the minimal amount of shuffling they go through I doubt will hurt anything too quickly; finding sleeves for the over-sized cards would probably pose a problem anyway.
Now that Tiny Epic Defenders is out and I’ve had the full version on my table, there are two issues with the game I’d like to talk about. First, the game pretty-much encourages quarterbacking. This is a “problem” some people find with most cooperative games, but it’s especially true of games with simpler mechanics that see players defending various areas. Players will run into a lot of “you go here, you go there, and then when it’s my turn I’ll go here and do this,” and there’s not really much they’ll be able to do about it. The one saving grace is that the turn orders are random so some discussion about strategy-tweaks might accompany new card draws, but if your group has a “leader” type in it you can expect to have them take point in this game. While the Alpha Gamer Syndrome is something I’m normally not that concerned about because I think it’s a problem with the person, rather than the game, Tiny Epic Defenders just isn’t complex enough to encourage the longer, collaborative, more meaningful strategic discussions that would normally help mitigate someone like that if your group isn’t completely passive. It still works for my group because I tend not to play with that kind of person, but be aware this possibility exists here more than in other cases.
The second issue is the bigger one for me, and that is where does it fit? Let me explain. The mechanics and iconography are simple and straightforward, to the point where I think parents could even teach younger children the game and table this as a cooperative, family experience. However, Castle Panic is similarly a game about mitigating damage until all the baddies are used up and destroyed, and I think younger audiences will have a much easier time understanding that game’s concentric-ring layout than they will Tiny Epic Defenders’s somewhat abstracted process of applying threat to areas based on symbols shown on enemy cards. Furthermore, most kids don’t like losing, and Castle Panic is much more forgiving in that regard.
Now, I’d personally NEVER recommend Castle Panic to anyone other than for family play with younger children, but Tiny Epic Defenders is also somewhat damned on the other end of the spectrum of more challenging, adult-oriented damage mitigation games. Tiny Epic Defenders was unique when it was on kickstarter in that it offered a Ghost Stories-like experience mechanics-wise, with survival/mitigation until a boss appeared, as well as difficulty-wise, but unlike Ghost Stories it required little setup, was portable, and played in half the time. Since then, however, perhaps maybe even a little ironically given that comparison, Antoine Bauza has released Samurai Spirit which I think distills that essence in, quite frankly, a much better way than Tiny Epic Defenders. Samurai Spirit hits the same play-time, is more complex, can seat up to 7 players(and scales beautifully), costs about the same, has much better theme integration, and in a total surprising move actually comes in a box that’s not that much bigger than TED. Even more impressive, Samurai Spirit does all that without ever feeling like a filler. You can read our full review of that title here. The only reason I’d table Tiny Epic Defenders over it is if I wanted to play with only one or two people.
COG Takeaway: Although it hit a unique niche when it was on kickstarter as a light, cooperative filler game that gave the same general feel as Ghost Stories and played in under 30 minutes, Samurai Spirit has since released and, in my opinion, does everything Tiny Epic Defenders does but better while only sacrificing a small degree of portability. I still enjoy what Tiny Epic Defenders has to offer and it will see some table time between other games, or perhaps when travelling or when I want to play solo or with only one other person, but for me its utility has been diminished in the wake of Samurai Spirit’s release. Also, if you’re a family looking for a light cooperative game to play with the children, I’d recommend Castle Panic over this unless they like a challenge or you need something in a smaller box for a family trip. If, on the other hand, you need a light, half-hour cooperative game that absolutely must be portable enough to fit in a large pocket and is very simple to play yet still offers a good challenge, give TED Deluxe Edition a look.